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Sable or Lynx the Prize of Soviet Hunters

<i> Eaton heads The Times' Moscow bureau. </i>

The word from the headquarters of the Soviet fur industry here is that sable is stable.

The Russian sable, once thought to be on the verge of extinction, has become as plentiful as it was before Siberia was settled 300 years ago, according to leading naturalists.

But the number of sable pelts that may be taken each year is strictly regulated by the state, and this season only 39,000 of the sleek brown animals will be killed for their fur.

Lynx Most Fashionable

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Lynx, which is currently the most fashionable fur in the West, continues to be “very rare,” according to Nikolai S. Sviridov, a professor at the Irkutsk Agricultural Institute and an expert on fur-bearing animals and hunting management.

A lynx pelt, which brings up to $2,000 at the big wholesale auction in Leningrad, is worth from 200 to 250 rubles ($225 to $285) to the Siberian hunter who tracks it down. Only the highest-quality sable pelt brings its hunter 200 rubles; most are bought for about 50 rubles ($57).

The reward to the hunter is 20 times more than it was a decade ago, but the number of lynx taken each year remains fairly constant at about 600. Lynx normally have only two cubs a year, and even for the seasoned Siberian hunters, they are hard to track.

The most precious fur, perhaps, comes from the sea otter, which is found only in the Soviet Far East. A hat made from its pelts would cost about 1,200 rubles (about $1,356). Fresh-water seals are found only in Lake Baikal, not far from Irkutsk. About 6,000 of these seals are taken each year from a herd of 70,000.

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Hundreds of thousands of hunters in the back country, each with an exclusive territory, forward millions of animal skins to a processing factory in Irkutsk from late September through mid-February, the period when hunting is allowed.

Pleasure and Profit

The hunters, covered with fur from the schapka on their heads to the leggings around their felt boots, and generally accompanied by a dog--a laika , a local breed similar to the husky--recall the backwoodsmen of the American frontier.

The outdoors tradition is strong in Siberia, where perhaps 90% of the people in isolated regions hunt for pleasure or profit.

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“There are still grandfathers living who used to go against bears with just cold steel,” Sviridov of the Agricultural Institute said.

It is not the glamorous furs, however, but the common squirrel that provides these people with the greater part of their income.

“In a good season, a hunter can bring in 40 to 45 squirrels a day,” Alexander N. Komov, who is in charge of the Irkutsk fur-processing plant, told a visitor. “This year, the harvest of squirrels is especially good, because last year pine nuts were plentiful.”

2 Million Processed

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The factory processes 2 million squirrels every season, and each is worth 4 rubles (about $4.50) to the hunter. The animals are skinned on the spot, and the pelts are sent by regular mail to the Irkutsk factory, which is the largest in the Soviet Union.

The pelts of wild mink, ermine, wolverine, red fox and Siberian wolf are graded for quality, processed and then forwarded to Leningrad for the semiannual auction. The buyers include foreigners as well as Soviets.

At one time, Komov said, 40% of the fur was exported, but now only 15% leaves the Soviet Union. Stronger demand by Soviet buyers, he said, accounted for the shift.

Komov wears a mink hat. They sell for up to 400 rubles ($450) at retail stores in Moscow.

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The drab-looking factory that Komov manages may contain 20 million rubles (about $23 million) worth of fur at the height of the season.

The fur trade is strictly regulated, and hunting is stopped if the number of animals in an area falls too low. For years, cheetahs, tigers and snow leopards have not been hunted in the Irkutsk area. Polar bears and brown bears are also on the no-hunting list.

Hunting quotas are fixed by the national government after a careful estimate of each species is made by officials in the field, Sviridov said.

The return of sable was made possible, he said, only because of the institute’s efforts. At first, sable hunting was banned. Then sable was brought back to areas where it did not exist. Finally, the sable harvest was strictly controlled, he said.

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Some Opposition

On the other hand, Sviridov said, the authorities want to exterminate wolves, which have multiplied so fast that they have become pests. Wolves have become more difficult to track down and kill, he said, because they have changed their habits to avoid hunters.

There are some groups in the Soviet Union that oppose hunting wild animals and wearing their fur, but Sviridov and his colleagues have little sympathy with this point of view.

“If these groups succeed, the hunters will disappear, but so will the animals,” an official said.

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He said that illegal poachers and natural forces would tend to eliminate wild animals at a rapid rate if the government halted the official fur trade.


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